Opportunity in a Lawmaker's Fall

Rep. John T. Doolittle was forced off the Appropriations Committee in April. (Randy Pench - AP)
By Paul Kane Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

Indictments and corruption scandals can mean one member of Congress's demise but become another's bounty, with key vacancies created on prized committees when ethics probes force lawmakers to step aside.

Take Rep. William J. Jefferson (D), the New Orleans lawmaker indicted Monday in a sprawling 16-count accusation of illegal global dealmaking. Already pushed off a key panel last June -- the Ways and Means Committee, with international trade oversight -- Jefferson was forced to resign Tuesday from the one assignment he had left, on the less glamorous Small Business Committee.

In addition, Jefferson's hope of obtaining a seat on the Homeland Security Committee, which had been approved by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) but never brought to a floor vote, went up in indictment smoke as well. This has created a just-beneath-the-radar jockeying among Democrats to grab a spot on the Homeland Security panel, which is just a few years old but has assumed a high profile after Hurricane Katrina and amid the fight against terrorism.

While speculation in some corners pointed toward one of the 42 new Democrats elected in 2006, Pelosi remained mum about whom she would recommend to the steering committee (the small group of Democrats that approves panel assignments, with a high degree of deference to the speaker).

Pelosi is hardly alone in making such sensitive replacement picks. House Republicans have been buffeted by federal investigations the past two years as well.

Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), for example, was forced off the Appropriations Committee in April after the FBI raided his home in Oakton, searching for records of his wife's business because she worked for now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff and other lobbyists while her husband performed legislative favors for their clients.

In selecting Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) navigated a political minefield of ethical concerns and internal politics, as the 19 California Republicans lobbied on Calvert's behalf to keep the seat in the delegation's hands. Boehner, in a statement on the decision, tacitly acknowledged questions about Calvert's land deals and spending he has secured for projects near those properties.

"Congressman Calvert answered every question asked of him," Boehner said of the "candid" closed-door session of the GOP's steering committee.

Some conservative bloggers criticized Calvert's selection, and Democrats attacked the decision but backed down from staff-level threats to force a vote on it, as Boehner had vowed to do if Pelosi moved to put Jefferson on the Homeland Security Committee.

Calvert's rise had a beneficial domino effect for another lawmaker under scrutiny over Abramoff ties. Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), who has been contacted by the Justice Department over his 2003 golf junket to Scotland with Abramoff, took over as ranking minority member of the Science and Technology subcommittee on space from Calvert, who was forced to give up all assignments to assume the coveted Appropriations spot.

Sometimes, leaders simply just punt on the sensitive replacement-selection process, as Pelosi did a year ago after booting Jefferson from Ways and Means.

Under pressure from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Pelosi made it appear as if Jefferson's ouster was temporary by not replacing him. After the electoral landslide of November, the new majority's committee ratios allowed her to select nine new Ways and Means members.

Although she still rejected Jefferson, Pelosi plucked two junior Black Caucus members for the plum assignment -- Reps. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.) and Artur Davis (D-Ala.) -- shoring up support among that group.

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